I have a confession to make. I hate cute animals. The so-called charismatic mega-fauna -- pandas, penguins and baby polar bears -- get all the attention. I think it's time to change the record and share some of that love with the ugly, weird freaks of the animal world before it's too late.
I'm on a one-woman mission against this tyranny of cute, and the first step in my global campaign begins with my new series, Freaks and Creeps, which airs on Tuesday, July 17 at 10 pm on National Geographic Wild. In the show, I head off to the farthest corners of the planet to seek out some of the strangest animals in existence. As a taster of what to expect, here are my top ten animal freaks.
1. PROBOSCIS MONKEY
This has got to be the world's weirdest monkey, with his long pendulous nose, massive pot-belly and Donald Trump hair. The nose is a sign of his Alpha status -- the bigger it is, the louder he can honk to scare off other males. The females like it too, and in my Borneo episode of Freaks and Creeps (which airs on July 24) I meet a zoologist who spends her time measuring the males noses and... testicles. She's discovered that in the proboscis monkey there is a direct link -- the bigger the schnoz, the more virile the male. And they display that virility 24/7 -- the proboscis monkey's other major protuberance is permanent bright red erection that looks exactly like a chilli pepper. Hot!
2. PYGMY SLOTH
I have a soft spot for sloths -- I've made several viral videos about them and a whole show for Animal Planet -- but this one is my favorite species by far. It's a dwarf -- just two-thirds the size of a regular sloth -- and it lives on an island off the coast of Panama. They hang out in the mangrove swamps where they like to eat a special algae that scientists have discovered contains a chemical that has a similar effect to Valium. So these sleepy sloths don't just look stoned, they are stoned.
The echidna is an ancient termite-eating mammal from the topsy-turvy island of Australia that still shares features with our reptile ancestors. Instead of giving birth to live young, the females still lay eggs. But the oddness doesn't end there. The male has what can only be described as the world's weirdest penis. I go in search of it in the first episode of Freaks and Creeps and discover it has four heads and looks like a strange, stumpy, thumb-less hand. Most of the year it is hidden inside but in breeding season it pops out, like a rubber glove, ready for action. His testicles are also hidden inside his body, but I'm reliably informed they are the largest in relation to body size of any mammal.
Thanks to their all-over scaly body armor, pangolins look like an extra from Star Wars. I fulfilled a life-long fantasy by meeting this walking pine cone in our South Africa show (which airs July 31). Their crazy armor is, of course, for defense; when under attack they roll up into a tight ball and their razor-sharp scales protect them from would-be predators like hyenas and leopards. For good measure they also emit a foul stench from their bottoms, which acts as extra deterrent. Despite all this smelly behavior, I happen to think these peculiar anteaters are incredibly cute.
6. PEARL FISH
Nature is awash with peculiar partnerships between different species of animal, but this is one of the strangest. This tiny eel-like fish has a rather unsavory home -- the anus of a sea cucumber. It spends the day with just its head poking out of the sea cucumber's bottom, then under the cover of darkness it emerges outside to eat small invertebrates. The pearl fish is, however, a rather disrespectful guest with a tendency towards the worst kind of fridge raiding. If during the day the pearl fish feels a bit peckish, he has been known to break through the sea cucumber's intestinal wall and graze on its gonads. How rude!
Another antipodean oddity, the wombat is a burrowing marsupial with a reinforced butt capable of crushing a dog's head. In my show I get to slap a wombat's butt and I can confirm that it really is hard, like a bony plate. But not only is his butt tough but it also does perfectly cuboid poops, which he uses to mark his territory. This fecal feat of engineering is superior to a regular round poop, which would roll away, leaving his territory unmarked. Scientists have yet to figure out how he manages to do the square poo but the mind certainly boggles.
Another loveable island freak, the solenodon (pronounced alarmingly like Celine Dion) is a large shrew whose claim to fame is that he's one of only a handful of mammals to produce venom. He's found in the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Haiti where he spends his days sleeping and his nights hunting insects, which he kills with his venomous saliva. Another curious trait of this extremely eccentric creature is that the female's nipples are situated on her rear end, just above her buttocks, which means her children, whilst being weaned, get a somewhat bum deal.
8. FLYING FROG
Borneo's rainforests are the tallest on the planet, with some trees reaching almost 300 feet. This has resulted in a range of unlikely animals evolving the ability to fly. There are flying frogs, flying lemurs, flying lizards and even a flying snake -- which has got to be everyone's ultimate nightmare. The flying frog uses the extensive webbing between his suckered toes as a form of parachute that enables him to glide from tree to tree. Genius.
9. COCONUT CRAB
Weighing up to 90 pounds with a leg span of up to six feet, the coconut crab is the world's largest invertebrate (animal without a backbone). This monster is actually a type of hermit crab but his body is way too big for any shell. He's also known as the robber crab, as he has a habit of going on midnight bin raids in search of junk food. An inhabitant of the Pacific islands, this creepy freak is a great example of island gigantism -- the tendency for species isolated on islands to evolve into giants and as a result looks like some kind of alien from a Ridley Scott movie.
10. GIANT CHINESE SALAMANDER
The Giant Chinese salamander is the world's largest amphibian. Admittedly he's not a very pretty chap -- the albino variety looks alarmingly like a six-foot penis -- which is why he's more endangered than his neighbor, the altogether fluffier and more famous Giant Panda. But he has an important role to play in the middle of the food chain and deserves to be saved. All together now: stuff the panda, save the salamander!
Freaks & Creeps: Devil Island airs on Tuesday, 7/17 at 10 pm on Nat Geo WILD. Enjoy!
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